By Pauline Askin
SYDNEY, Feb 15 (Reuters) - A buxom woman in a low-cut red dress brandishes a pistol, her finger poised to pull the trigger, but a closer look at the painting reveals the woman is model-turned-novelist Tara Moss.
In another painting a woman in a red beret and tight yellow, slit skirt with one hand on her hip and the other holding a cigarette is in fact one of Australia's senior crown prosecutors, Margaret Cunneen.
The paintings in award-winning Australian artist Rosemary Valadon's latest exhibition, "Wicked Women," feature femmes fatale in the style of classic film noir movie posters and pulp fiction covers but the faces are of prominent Australian women.
The models for the 17 oil paintings in the exhibition include journalists, lawyers, a crown prosecutor, designers, actresses and three female staff members at Sydney's Justice and Police Museum, where the exhibition is being held.
"I think that Rosemary was particularly interested in the ideas around women's sexual 'wickedness,' and that was part of what she was interested in exploring," curator Nerida Campbell told Reuters.
The paintings by Valadon took two years to complete and use bold colours and strong lines that produce an almost 3D effect in some cases.
While some of the models had time for multiple sittings, others had as little as half an hour for Valadon to make a quick sketch. Replicas were made of original guns and weapons displayed at the museum for the women to use as they posed.
One room is devoted to the paintings themselves, while the other features sketches. A recording of Valadon's voice leads visitors through her creative process, from photography and modeling to sketching in charcoals and pencil, and ultimately the finished work.
The models relished the chance to show another side to their character, at least for a couple of days.
""Wicked Women" is an exciting series of works because it explores the perception of hot-blooded women in an era when women were expected to be more demure and compliant than they are today," said senior crown prosecutor Margaret Cunneen.
"These women, in my view, were portrayed as sassy, sexy and impulsive to the point of dangerousness. I think the work evokes a passionate, gutsy and high-spirited woman who has been strengthened, through hardship, to ultimate resilience."
The public response to the exhibition, which runs until late May, has been good, Campbell said, drawing viewers whose interest ranges from the painting style to simple curiosity about the the famous women themselves.
"I think what people find interesting is what Rosemary wanted to do -- subvert the stereotypes and allow modern, independent strong women to imprint their personality on these more sexist original works," she said.
(Reporting by Pauline Askin, editing by Elaine Lies and Belinda Goldsmith)